Carrying on with calculus

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On October 6, 2020

Socially-distanced early-sequence calculus lectures are currently held in the Student Recreation Center gym. Photo courtesy of Mark Fitch.

This article is part of a series about Missouri S&T’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making teaching in-person on college campuses more complicated. But Missouri S&T instructors are stretching their imaginations to help students in classes such as calculus – a course that is fundamental to the degree programs of nearly 90% of S&T students.

Understanding calculus is essential for students who plan to work in the fields of engineering, science and economics, says Stephanie Fitch, teaching professor in mathematics and statistics at S&T. Fitch is teaching Calculus 1 (Math 1214) this semester along with Kelley Koob, assistant teaching professor in mathematics and statistics.

“It’s important that our lower-level calculus students, especially in their first year, have the opportunity to be taught in person for every class,” says Fitch. “Being able to interact with the instructor and other students is critical to their understanding, and it makes learning calculus more efficient and less frustrating.

“And in class, students form relationships that lead to outside involvements that can help their academic future — like study groups, research projects, and even scholarships and career opportunities. Many lasting friendships that begin in college often start in the classroom.”

Trading spaces

S&T’s early-sequence calculus classes normally seat 120 – 450 students, and the COVID-19 six-feet social distancing standards have brought on logistical modifications.

“The limited room capacities forced us to innovate,” says Paul Runnion, associate teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies in mathematics and statistics. “We were pleased to be able to use the Student Recreation Center for some of our largest courses. We also changed teaching methods for the labs and implemented a ‘contact-free’ grading technology that is working very well.”

For Calculus 1 lectures, the instructors use the Student Recreation Center gym with socially-distanced seating for classes of 100 – 240 students. With this arrangement, everyone can see the lessons projected live on two giant screens in the front of the gym, along with four large monitors placed halfway back in the audience. The set-up also allows quarantined students to watch their regular lecture in real-time and participate via Zoom.

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Fast-forward through the first Calculus 1 test of the Fall 2020 semester.

For tests, 370 of the 444 students enrolled in Calculus 1 can be seated in the gym at once in a socially distanced arrangement that does not require use of the screens, with the rest parsed out into separate rooms.

“This way they can continue to take a paper test, and we can give them partial credit for their handwritten work if they only make a tiny mistake, which would not be feasible with online testing systems,” says Koob.

Calculus 1 lab sessions have also evolved. Normally the labs contained about 35 students, but that number has been reduced to around 20, requiring more lab sessions and larger room sizes than before. Prior to the pandemic, students collaborated on calculus problems in groups around large writing boards. Now, in addition to using boards, the graduate teaching assistants in charge demonstrate from 2’-by-2.5’ notepads on the walls in classrooms that expand the workspace, but still encourage socially-distanced group work. 

An online lecture for each of the three early-sequence calculus courses is also offered. Nearly 100 students chose to take the online version of Calculus 1 that is generated from the live gym lectures.

Hayden Lovell, a sophomore in electrical engineering from Blue Springs, Missouri, took Calculus 1 online because it was easiest to do from his summer location. He then received an email from Runnion asking his preference of online or in-person placement for Calculus 2 (Math 1215). Lovell says he chose in-person because for him it’s easier to focus, and there are less distractions than at home.

First results positive

As another COVID-19 precaution, a touchless, streamlined grading system has been deployed that is also bringing new efficiencies to the department. The system eliminates the graders’ repetitive handling of thousands of sheets of paper bearing handwritten mathematical equations.

With “Gradescope” software, the calculus tests are scanned, matched to the class roster by handwriting recognition, and grouped by the same mistakes. Once the scans are in, the paper handling of the grading process is over. Graders set up a rubric to easily add comments. Fitch says the students have noticed there is more feedback with this method, and that their grading time has been cut by 30%–50%.

“Our first Calculus 1 exam is graded now, and the scores are right in line with what we have seen in the last several fall semesters,” says Fitch. “I would not have expected them to be better, and I’m quite pleased that this unusual classroom environment has not hurt the scores.”

Fitch says she’s especially impressed with how students are responding to the changes that came with the pandemic this year.

“The vast majority are following the rules and doing what it takes to make their calculus learning a success. They’re all wearing their masks to class—we’ve not had to ask anyone to comply,” says Fitch. “With all these changes, I’m grateful for how our students have stepped up to the plate.”

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